Scott Alexander, (Alexander 2014)


Systems compel the individuals within them to act within the rules of the system rather than by a globally optimal set of rules.


TODO Thoughts

TODO Notes


See Howl.

A lot of the commentators say Moloch represents capitalism. This is definitely a piece of it, even a big piece. But it doesn’t quite fit. Capitalism, whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen? Capitalism in whom I am a consciousness without a body? Capitalism, therefore granite cocks?

Moloch is introduced as the answer to a question – C. S. Lewis' question in Hierarchy Of Philosophers – what does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. Instead we have prisons, smokestacks, asylums. What sphinx of cement and aluminum breaks open their skulls and eats up their imagination?

And Ginsberg answers: Moloch does it.

There’s a passage in the Principia Discordia where Malaclypse complains to the Goddess about the evils of human society. “Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.”

The Goddess answers: “What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”

Malaclypse: “But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!”

Goddess: “Oh. Well, then stop.”

The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.

Bostrom makes an offhanded reference of the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.


Prisoner’s dilemma

Fish farming story

As a thought experiment, let’s consider aquaculture (fish farming) in a lake. Imagine a lake with a thousand identical fish farms owned by a thousand competing companies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/month. For a while, all is well.

But each fish farm produces waste, which fouls the water in the lake. Let’s say each fish farm produces enough pollution to lower productivity in the lake by $1/month.

A thousand fish farms produce enough waste to lower productivity by $1000/month, meaning none of the fish farms are making any money. Capitalism to the rescue: someone invents a complex filtering system that removes waste products. It costs $300/month to operate. All fish farms voluntarily install it, the pollution ends, and the fish farms are now making a profit of $700/month – still a respectable sum.

But one farmer (let’s call him Steve) gets tired of spending the money to operate his filter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is polluting the lake, lowering productivity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and everyone else earns $699 profit.

Everyone else sees Steve is much more profitable than they are, because he’s not spending the maintenance costs on his filter. They disconnect their filters too.

Once four hundred people disconnect their filters, Steve is earning $600/month – less than he would be if he and everyone else had kept their filters on! And the poor virtuous filter users are only making $300. Steve goes around to everyone, saying “Wait! We all need to make a voluntary pact to use filters! Otherwise, everyone’s productivity goes down.”

Everyone agrees with him, and they all sign the Filter Pact, except one person who is sort of a jerk. Let’s call him Mike. Now everyone is back using filters again, except Mike. Mike earns $999/month, and everyone else earns $699/month. Slowly, people start thinking they too should be getting big bucks like Mike, and disconnect their filter for $300 extra profit…

A self-interested person never has any incentive to use a filter. A self-interested person has some incentive to sign a pact to make everyone use a filter, but in many cases has a stronger incentive to wait for everyone else to sign such a pact but opt out himself. This can lead to an undesirable equilibrium in which no one will sign such a pact.

Malthusian trap

Suppose you are one of the first rats introduced onto a pristine island. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life lounging about, eating, and composing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH

You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen children. All of them have a dozen children, and so on. In a couple generations, the island has ten thousand rats and has reached its carrying capacity. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a certain percent of each new generation dies in order to keep the population steady at ten thousand.

A certain sect of rats abandons art in order to devote more of their time to scrounging for survival. Each generation, a bit less of this sect dies than members of the mainstream, until after a while, no rat composes any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go extinct within a few generations.

In fact, it’s not just art. Any sect at all that is leaner, meaner, and more survivalist than the mainstream will eventually take over. If one sect of rats altruistically decides to limit its offspring to two per couple in order to decrease overpopulation, that sect will die out, swarmed out of existence by its more numerous enemies. If one sect of rats starts practicing cannibalism, and finds it gives them an advantage over their fellows, it will eventually take over and reach fixation.

If some rat scientists predict that depletion of the island’s nut stores is accelerating at a dangerous rate and they will soon be exhausted completely, a few sects of rats might try to limit their nut consumption to a sustainable level. Those rats will be outcompeted by their more selfish cousins. Eventually the nuts will be exhausted, most of the rats will die off, and the cycle will begin again. Any sect of rats advocating some action to stop the cycle will be outcompeted by their cousins for whom advocating anything is a waste of time that could be used to compete and consume.

For a bunch of reasons evolution is not quite as Malthusian as the ideal case, but it provides the prototype example we can apply to other things to see the underlying mechanism. From a god’s-eye-view, it’s easy to say the rats should maintain a comfortably low population. From within the system, each individual rat will follow its genetic imperative and the island will end up in an endless boom-bust cycle.


Imagine a capitalist in a cutthroat industry. He employs workers in a sweatshop to sew garments, which he sells at minimal profit. Maybe he would like to pay his workers more, or give them nicer working conditions. But he can’t, because that would raise the price of his products and he would be outcompeted by his cheaper rivals and go bankrupt. Maybe many of his rivals are nice people who would like to pay their workers more, but unless they have some kind of ironclad guarantee that none of them are going to defect by undercutting their prices they can’t do it.

Two-income trap

It theorized that sufficiently intense competition for suburban houses in good school districts meant that people had to throw away lots of other values – time at home with their children, financial security – to optimize for house-buying-ability or else be consigned to the ghetto.

From a god’s-eye-view, if everyone agrees not to take on a second job to help win their competition for nice houses, then everyone will get exactly as nice a house as they did before, but only have to work one job. From within the system, absent a government literally willing to ban second jobs, everyone who doesn’t get one will be left behind.



A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.


But not only have we not yet reached the sea, but we also seem to move uphill surprisingly often. Why do things not degenerate more and more until we are back at subsistence level? I can think of three bad reasons – excess resources, physical limitations, and utility maximization – plus one good reason – coordination.

I know that “capitalists sometimes do bad things” isn’t exactly an original talking point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equivalent to “capitalists are greedy”. I mean, sometimes they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a sufficiently intense competition where anyone who doesn’t do it will be outcompeted and replaced by people who do. Business practices are set by Moloch, no one else has any choice in the matter.

(from my very little knowledge of Marx, he understands this very very well and people who summarize him as “capitalists are greedy” are doing him a disservice)

For example, ever-increasing prison terms are unfair to inmates and unfair to the society that has to pay for them. Politicans are unwilling to do anything about them because they don’t want to look “soft on crime”, and if a single inmate whom they helped release ever does anything bad (and statistically one of them will have to) it will be all over the airwaves as “Convict released by Congressman’s policies kills family of five, how can the Congressman even sleep at night let alone claim he deserves reelection?”. So even if decreasing prison populations would be good policy – and it is – it will be very difficult to implement.

(Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the stunned governments!)

[…] government can easily solve the pollution problem with fish farms. The best known solution to the Prisoners' Dilemma is for the mob boss (playing the role of a governor) to threaten to shoot any prisoner who defects. The solution to companies polluting and harming workers is government regulations against such. Governments solve arm races within a country by maintaining a monopoly on the use of force, and it’s easy to see that if a truly effective world government ever arose, international military buildups would end pretty quickly.

The two active ingredients of government are laws plus violence – or more abstractly agreements plus enforcement mechanism. Many other things besides governments share these two active ingredients and so are able to act as coordination mechanisms to avoid traps.


But these institutions not only incentivize others, but are incentivized themselves. These are large organizations made of lots of people who are competing for jobs, status, prestige, et cetera – there’s no reason they should be immune to the same multipolar traps as everyone else, and indeed they aren’t. Governments can in theory keep corporations, citizens, et cetera out of certain traps, but as we saw above there are many traps that governments themselves can fall into.


So I agree with Robin Hanson: This is the dream time. This is a rare confluence of circumstances where the we are unusually safe from multipolar traps, and as such weird things like art and science and philosophy and love can flourish.

As technological advance increases, the rare confluence will come to an end. New opportunities to throw values under the bus for increased competitiveness will arise. New ways of copying agents to increase the population will soak up our excess resources and resurrect Malthus' unquiet spirit. Capitalism and democracy, previously our protectors, will figure out ways to route around their inconvenient dependence on human values. And our coordination power will not be nearly up to the task, assuming somthing much more powerful than all of us combined doesn’t show up and crush our combined efforts with a wave of its paw.

Contract Drafting Em

The last value we have to sacrifice is being anything at all, having the lights on inside. With sufficient technology we will be “able” to give up even the final spark.

(Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!)

Everything the human race has worked for – all of our technology, all of our civilization, all the hopes we invested in our future – might be accidentally handed over to some kind of unfathomable blind idiot alien god that discards all of them, and consciousness itself, in order to participate in some weird fundamental-level mass-energy economy that leads to it disassembling Earth and everything on it for its component atoms.

(Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!)

We will break our back lifting Moloch to Heaven, but unless something changes it will be his victory and not ours.


The opposite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid having all human values gradually ground down by optimization-competition is to install a Gardener over the entire universe who optimizes for human values.

And the whole point of Bostrom’s Superintelligence is that this is within our reach. Once humans can design machines that are smarter than we are, by definition they’ll be able to design machines which are smarter than they are, which can design machines smarter than they are, and so on in a feedback loop so tiny that it will smash up against the physical limitations for intelligence in a comparatively lightning-short amount of time. If multiple competing entities were likely to do that at once, we would be super-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it possible that we will end up with one entity light-years ahead of the rest of civilization, so much so that it can suppress any competition – including competition for its title of most powerful entity – permanently. In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it’s on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

And if that entity shares human values, it can allow human values to flourish unconstrained by natural law.


The Universe is a dark and foreboding place, suspended between alien deities. Cthulhu, Gnon, Moloch, call them what you will.

Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the Kushiel books, his name was Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. He is a god of humans.

The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even control any hell-monsters or command his worshippers to become killing machines. What a weakling! This is going to be so easy!”

But somehow Elua is still here. No one knows exactly how. And the gods who oppose Him tend to find Themselves meeting with a surprising number of unfortunate accidents.

There are many gods, but this one is ours.


The question everyone has after reading Ginsberg is: what is Moloch?

My answer is: Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.

He always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I can grant you power.

As long as the offer’s open, it will be irresistible. So we need to close the offer. Only another god can kill Moloch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.

Alexander, Scott. 2014. “Meditations On Moloch.” Slate Star Codex.

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